Swaziland: The Forgotten Land of Avarice

In a tiny land far, far away, there live a people who suffer daily under the rule of an arrogant and selfish king. The majority of the people are very poor, with little to eat. The people toil to earn their daily bread. Meanwhile, their King sits in a lavish castle. He enjoys only the finest of luxuries, and his plate of course is never empty. Although the king is laden with wealth, he gives little to his people, who are helpless, forever slave to their king…”

Although the excerpt above seems like something that could only have originated from a children’s fairytale, it is in fact a description of the current situation in Swaziland, Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy. Swaziland is not only the smallest country in Africa, surrounded almost entirely by South Africa, but it is also the smallest country in the entire Southern Hemisphere. Its small size and lack of strategic importance has allowed the country going largely unnoticed by the international community. Sadly, this neglect has permitted its government, comprised of essentially a king and an appointed legislature, to in turn neglect its people’s needs and to allow them to suffer under a deteriorating economy with no palpable recourse. However, anger amongst Swazis is growing, and just this past March thousands took to the streets to protest civil service lay-offs and a pay freeze amidst government corruption and the king’s increased decadence. Could this resistance mark the beginning of a much awaited end to Africa’s last true monarchy?

Swaziland’s system of government is archaic: an autocratic regime that makes no attempt to even feign democratic countenance. In fact, the autocracy has for decades successfully convinced the majority of the populace that since the country has always been a kingdom, a tradition rooted in Swazi culture, that the concept of the political party and even basic democratic principles are ‘alien’ and therefore incompatible with tradition. Swaziland’s government is comprised of a King, who serves as the lone executive authority, and a bi-cameral legislature (Senate and House of Assembly), whose members are predominantly appointed by the King. Elections are held every five years for those constituencies that elect parliamentarians. Elections however are nothing than a farce to convince the public that it has some control over and representation within the government. All candidates are loyal to the royalist regime; the election of an openly opposition and/or reformist candidate is a rarity, and even if elected, there are always sufficient regime-loyalists to stymie any attempts at political change. Parliamentarians are essentially accountable to the king, not to the people.

Political parties are banned and election campaigning is restricted in Swaziland. Like so many other oppressive governments worldwide, the Swazi regime has used the recent ‘war on terror’ as a basis to deny the formation of any pro-democracy parties. The Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) party, Swaziland’s major movement for political change, operates in exile, banned entirely after the provision of an anti-terror law by the regime. The regime works tirelessly to eradicate PUDEMO’s influence within Swaziland. It has even been implicated in the May 2011 murder of a PUDEMO supporter, Sipho Jele, who was found hanged, at the correctional facility he was being housed at after being arrested for wearing a PUDEMO t-shirt at a recent demonstration. At his funeral, which was attended by over 500 people, police arrested several attendees and stripped others of any PUDEMO paraphernalia, including the cloth that had been laid across Jele’s coffin. In addition to a ban on all political parties, who the government confidently calls ‘terrorists’, all media is subject to censorship, particularly the broadcast or publication of any government criticism. Media outlets have frequently been shut down; their operations suspended or owners taken to court because of their reporting of government officials’ corruption.

Perhaps most disturbing is that the current governmental system primarily persists because of the Swazi public’s apathy toward it. Most Swazis have come to merely accept the royal regime as an unchanging monolith; they willingly offer their subservience to a king that continues to act only within his own interests. As a result, past efforts at constitutional reform simply waned; without substantial desire of the population for democratic change, there was essentially no incentive for the regime to enact any reform that might reduce its power. Also as a result of this public apathy, civil society groups, particularly pro-democracy organizations, have struggled to garner sufficient support.

Swaziland currently suffers from a severe economic crisis, the cause of which is terrible governance. Years of wasteful expenditure by the royal family, a lack of fiscal discipline and government corruption on a massive scale have veritably devastated the country’s already fragile and underdeveloped economic system. King Mswati III and his family for years have stripped the country and its people of their rightful wealth by using large investment corporations to control state economic resources. The most powerful of these is the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane Fund, first established in the 1950s after independence to control and regulate state resources. After independence, Swazi mineral rights and royalties were vested in the Swazi people, not the government. The Fund was created to administer these rights and to ensure proceeds went to the Swazi people. However, such was not the case.

Shortly after the fund was established, it became one of the royal family’s main sources of finance, controlled by the king’s male family members and accountable to the king and his wants only. The fund now has interests in agriculture, manufacturing, real estate and media. Particularly offensive is the use of the fund by the royal family to seize land from non-Swazis for its own benefit. These lands, which belong to the people, were developed into royally-owned maize and dairy estates, the profits of which go straight to the king. The royal family has used the capital generated from the fund to buy stakes in various foreign investment ventures and companies in various economic sectors, establishing its wider family clan (the Dlamini) as wealthy capitalist class that controls, not only the country’s politics, but major aspects of Swaziland’s economy. A regime change is therefore an obvious necessity to eradicating the royal family’s unconscionable grasp upon the country and its starvation of its people and their resources for its own gains.

In March, the Swaziland government announced the implementation of austerity measures within the civil service sector, after a sharp decline in customs revenue reduced the government’s budget. The government announced that it would be cutting civil service worker salaries, enacting a pay freeze and that it would be reducing and halting pensions for the elderly, who are reliant upon these annual payments of a mere $85 for basic survival. Shortly after the announcement, civil service workers, their families and civil society groups took to the streets in the thousands to peacefully protest the measures, loudly rebuking the government for forcing the public to bear the burden of the government’s corruption. Just in February, Swaziland’s finance minister admitted publicly that the government was losing an average of $11 million to corruption monthly; this does not include the millions of dollars in state revenue and proceeds that go to find the lavish lifestyle of the wretched king and his family. The king is estimated to be worth over $100 million—none of which is actually earned of course; and all of which is stolen from his people’s land and resources. While the king reels in exorbitant amounts of money, the average Swazi makes only about $1 per day. More than two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line. In addition, the AIDS prevalence rate is about 25%, the highest in the world and Swaziland’s life expectancy, a mere 32 years of age. The life expectancy of a Swazi royal family member is probably about double to triple that.

The royal family’s excessive lifestyle, particularly the king’s decision to once again spend lavishly on his birthday celebrations, while the rest of the country anguishes, resulted in unprecedented public rage and prompted mass protests. The rage was of course completely warranted, even if a decade or two late. Amidst the budget crisis, the Swazi government actually raised the king’s personal budget, which serves as a mere complement to a $10 billion trust left to the king by his even more corrupt father. So, while the public suffers and is forced to endure cuts resulting from a government-created budget crisis, the king sits on $10 billion made off the backs of the Swazi people? It would also be irresponsible to not mention the king’s use of public funds to purchase a personal private jet, to construct new royal palaces for his 14 wives, to purchase luxury vehicles, some of which cost $700,000 a piece, and to fund the infamous ‘Reed’ festival—where thousands of women are rallied into a football stadium to present themselves in hopes of becoming his next wife. And if this was not enough of an affront to the dignity of the Swazi people, just this past February, the government voted to increase politician exit packages and perks. The new budget now allows the wives of former prime ministers to receive salaries and enjoy medical aid and funeral benefits, courtesy of the state.

Although early protests were permitted under the watchful eye of Swazi security forces, the King has ultimately responded to protestor demands with a despotic crackdown, which includes breaking up union meetings, arresting pro-democracy supporters (allegedly beating and killing them as well), violently breaking up any new protest attempts and ejecting journalists from the country. It also seems that the proposed austerity measures will go ahead, and again the Swazi people will be forced to compensate for their government’s insatiable avarice. Another major unfortunate consequence of government greed is that it has also hindered the level of international humanitarian aid the country receives. Although sixty-percent of the country’s wealth is amassed in only 10% of the population’s hands (royal family and government officials), the country is categorized by the World Bank and other international institutions as ‘lower middle income’ because its GNI (gross national income) is so high. When the GNI is divided per capita it gives the false impression that the people are better off; however, such is not the case, as the average Swazi does not benefit from any government revenue or royal family profiteering. So, the implementation of austerity measures will not be matched by any increase in foreign aid, as the country simply does not qualify for such partnerships. In addition, although international humanitarian organizations understand the obvious disparity, they are increasingly reluctant to continue supporting development projects in Swaziland when the government is clearly capable of funding them itself (if not for the corruption).

Swazis have certainly experienced a sort of an awakening these past few months, mostly driven by the realization that their king lives separate from their reality, as if within his own fairy tale. Swazis recognize that their government does not serve the people, nor has it ever. However, this widespread awareness and rage must be matched with equally ardent action. Average Swazis must rally in support of themselves and against an impiety that ravishes their country in the form of a corrupt king and his sycophants. Many protestors indicated that they drew inspiration from recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. They have discovered that their subservience has always been a choice, and like the people of Tunisia and Egypt, they too can choose to no longer be slave to a parasitic regime that is all too happy to have them suffer for its own continued benefit.